There is no invisible hand of technology
Technology doesn’t progress on its own simply because we expect it to.
On a recent episode of Andrew Yang’s Forward podcast1, Walter Isaacson shared an anecdote he picked up while shadowing Elon Musk for the entrepreneur’s recently-released eponymous biography2. In this anecdote, Musk made the point that people take for granted that technology progresses on its own, as if it’s an unwritten law of the universe. As if things just move forward with time.
I haven’t been able to get Musk’s point out of my head after first hearing it. Why? What’s so significant about it? What does it really mean?
To me, it means humans have agency in shaping their future. More importantly, humans have a responsibility in shaping that future.
Too many of us accept that things will just work out. Or that they won’t. Whatever our outlook, we get complacent. We take whatever we can get. We accept the future and consequences we’re dealt. We blame the dealer even though we never acted on our chance to cut the deck.
Technology is not some mysterious force. There is no invisible hand of technology moving it in one direction or the other. Technology is the byproduct of our creations and the norms we create around using those creations.
At the time of this writing, AI is all the rage. I don’t think AI is worthy of being injected into every aspect of our lives, but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it won’t be injected into every area and situation possible. But this strategy is unforgivably reckless, because, as John Oliver said in his bit about AI on Last Week Tonight3:
The problem with AI isn’t that it’s smart–it’s that it’s stupid in ways we can’t always predict.
On his Substack, Gary Marcus recently echoed this sentiment when he pointed out how DALL-E 34, the latest version of OpenAI’s image generator, had problems showing black doctors with white patients, or a watch showing the time of 1 o’clock.5 We still don’t know the ways in which AI has unintentional bias. And we do a disservice by presenting AI as being limitlessly intelligent, when in fact its capabilities very much depend on how it’s trained and what it’s trained on.
At the risk of becoming a broken record, I’ll say it again: AI has potential. We should explore where and how it can help humanity. But we must do so in a responsible manner. We must be thoughtful and deliberate. Right now, we’re being anything but.
Technology doesn’t simply advance just because. It moves along the path we create for it. And I hope more people will start chiming in on which path we set this risky technology on. Just because there are risks involved doesn’t mean there aren’t great benefits waiting. But again, those benefits won’t happen on their own. We must play our part in making those benefits reality.